Spread out along the banks of the Nile, Aswan is a relaxed and friendly town that provides a tranquil interlude if you’ve just arrived from busier Luxor or Cairo. Once ancient Egypt’s gateway to Africa, this is a perfect base for exploring the temples and monuments in the southern reaches of Upper Egypt and the area’s distinctly different Nubian culture. The best way to discover Aswan’s charms is to hop aboard a felucca (traditional sailboat) and view town from the watery highway that once made Aswan an important trading post. The river here is speckled with islands holding picturesque mud-brick Nubian villages, and hemmed by the West Bank’s colossal sand dunes. It’s all incredibly photogenic, particularly at sunset when hundreds of lateen-sailed feluccas take to the water and the river shimmers in the setting sun.
If you have time for only one day trip from Aswan, pick a visit to Abu Simbel. Built by Ramses II, and saved from destruction by a remarkable UNESCO rescue project in the 1970s, Abu Simbel is not only a triumph of ancient architecture, but also of modern engineering. The mammoth scale of the temple trumps everything else in Egypt and has to be seen to be believed.
Aga Khan Mausoleum
Presiding prominently atop of the West Bank’s cliff, the Aga Khan Mausoleum was built to hold the tomb of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah (1877-1957), leader of the Shi’a Islam Nizari Ismaili sect. He is chiefly remembered for his various charitable acts, setting up educational and medical institutions throughout Africa and Asia, as well as for the influential role he played in discussions about the partition of India. Although born in Karachi (then part of India under British colonial rule), the Aga Khan often summered with his family in Aswan and so had a deep connection to this part of Egypt. You can’t visit the actual mausoleum, but you’re sure to spot it sitting high above the Nile’s bank.
Aswan High Dam
Aswan’s High Dam is modern Egypt’s most lauded and yet controversial building project. Begun in 1960 and taking 11 years to complete, the dam was President Nasser’s pet project and greatest achievement and was achieved through funding and technical help from the Soviet Union. The High Dam has some staggering statistics. Its building took 42.7 billion cubic meters of stone (17 times the volume of the Pyramid of Cheops) with its total length being 3.6 kilometers. It is 980 meters thick at the base and 40 meters at the top. The average capacity of the dam’s reservoir (Lake Nasser) is 135 billion cubic meters with a maximum capacity of 157 billion cubic meters.
The sacred Temple of Isis (more commonly known as Philae Temple) is one of Upper Egypt’s most beguiling monuments both for the exquisite artistry of its reliefs and for the gorgeous symmetry of its architecture, which made it a favorite subject of Victorian painters. Like Abu Simbel, the temple was saved by the rising waters of Lake Nasser by UNESCO’s rescue project and moved lock-stock-and-barrel from its original home on Philae Island to nearby (higher) Agilika Island where it sits today.
Aswan’s rather fantastic Nubian Museum is one of Egypt’s best and a must for anyone interested in the history and culture of both ancient and modern Nubia. It documents the riches of a culture that was all but washed away with the building of the Aswan Dam and creation of Lake Nasser. There is an excellent collection of artefacts from the Kingdom of Kush (ancient Nubia) and plenty of wonderful black-and-white photos of UNESCO’s incredible project to save Philae Temple and Abu Simbel from the rising waters of the dam (along with extensive photographs of the huge range of other monuments that are now lost forever under the lake’s waters).
Peppered with palm tree plantations and sloping villages of colorful mud-brick houses, Elephantine Island is Aswan’s major highlight. At its southern end are Aswan Museum (currently not open) and the Ruins of Abu, Aswan’s most ancient settlement, which contains the Old Kingdom Temple of Khnum and the Temple of Satet. On the eastern embankment near the ruins and down a flight of steps is Aswan’s Nilometer. Ancient Egyptians measured the Niles rise and fall with these stone-hewn wells allowing them to estimate the height of the annual flood and thus predict the success of their harvest.